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Thriving company has roots in first Civil War amputee

Amputation was the most common type of surgery performed on battlefields in the Civil War.

More than 60,000 people lost limbs, and James Edward Hanger was the first.

Hanger, an 18-year-old from Churchville, Va., had enlisted in the Confederate Army two days before the Battle of Philippi on June 3, 1861 - the first land battle of the Civil War that used organized troops.

At that battle, the Union Army set up its artillery on top of a hill and at daybreak fired at the town, where Confederate soldiers were still in tents and barns.

Hanger was in a barn when a 6-pound cannonball tore through his leg.

"This was quite a surprise," said historian James Robison, a Sesquicentennial Commission member. "There were probably only a few cannonballs fired into the town, probably no more than 10 - and one happened to hit in the leg."

The Confederates ran out of town immediately, leaving Hanger behind. 

Union soldiers eventually discovered him bleeding on the floor of the barn and took him into custody as a prisoner of war.

A union soldier eventually operated on Hanger and had no choice but to remove his leg - the first amputation of the Civil War.

That war saw a lot of amputations because of the type of weapons used and the state of medicine at the time.

"They were using rifled weapons with an ounce of lead," Robison said. "They would strike the bone and shatter it, and at that time there wasn't any other way of repairing a wound like that except an amputation."

Hanger later said he couldn't look back on the days after his amputation "without a shudder," according to Hanger Inc., the company he went on to create.

"No one can know what such a loss means unless he has suffered a similar catastrophe," he said. "In the twinkling of an eye, life's fondest hopes seemed dead. I was the prey of despair. What could the world hold for a maimed, crippled man?"

In August 1861, Hanger was released from the Union's control in a prisoner exchange and returned home to his family in Virginia. He was using the standard prosthetic at the time - a roughly constructed peg leg.

When he arrived home, he asked his family for solitude and spent weeks alone in his bedroom.

They assumed he was coping with his amputation. In fact, Hanger spent the time working to develop a better leg.

And he did - his new prosthetic leg was more comfortable and allowed for a greater range of motion than the standard-issue prosthetics of the time.

"He kept working to improve the leg until he got it developed so it was fully functional," Robison said.

Hanger soon secured two patents for his prosthetics from the Confederate government and began working with the army to make artificial limbs for other soldiers who had their legs or arms amputated. In 1891, Hanger was granted a U.S. patent.

By the time of World War I, Hanger was so far ahead in the business of making prosthetics that he moved his business to Washington, D.C., to produce artificial limbs for the federal government again - this time for World War I veterans.

The company is still running strong. Today, Hanger is a national, publicly traded company with more than 4,000 employees and branches in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, London and Paris. And that company, Hanger's legacy, has created a slew of new and innovative limbs in the years since Hanger was first wounded in the Civil War.


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